15 Readers on How They’re Cutting Costs

Plus: What not to cut back on

a person with a shopping cart at a grocery store
Francesca Volpi / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers for their best tips on cutting costs in times of economic strain—and, looking back on their lives, what they might consider to have been their most wasteful spending.

Denise leads us off this week as an exemplar of having one’s priorities in order:

I don’t have a ton of suggestions, but I did four things this fall to combat rising prices and my overall expenses:

  • I bought a heated throw hoping that it will help me keep the thermostat lower in my house; I’m frequently cold and used to not worry about the cost of heat, and I was determined to stay comfortable.
  • I called DirectTV and reduced my plan. I lost about 30 channels and haven’t missed any of them. I am saving $95 per month.  
  • I removed the warranty plan on my cellphone. That was $30 per month for two phones that are over a year old.
  • And the last item was a group decision: I meet regularly with a lovely group of retired friends. We switched to morning coffee instead of dinner. We just buy coffee, no big restaurant meal and drinks, but maybe we occasionally splurge on a muffin. :)

I did not even consider eliminating my subscription to The Atlantic.

Thrifty and discerning!

Timothy doesn’t see what more he could do to save:

I have always pursued a frugal lifestyle. I’ve eschewed brand names for decades. I’ve invested in freezers to be able to buy larger quantities of perishable food items and store them for longer than shelf-life allows.  

The current cycle of inflation is hitting particularly hard because there is nowhere left to economize. All my windows have plastic sheeting sealing them to avoid drafts. Blankets and space heaters are used to avoid heating the entire house. I get in lots of walking just to keep from driving the car; a single tank of gas lasts well over a month. All electric lights have been replaced with CFLs or LEDs. Water use is routinely checked and the toilet tanks dyed every few months to ensure there are no leaks. I’ve shopped at Aldi for a decade, eschewing choices and brand names for the cheapest prices of any grocery; I plan meals and attempt to ensure zero food waste.

Marilyn retired early on a relatively modest salary:

I come from Depression-era parents, so penny-pinching comes naturally to me. And I’m a great cook, so we don’t have restaurant food that often. I buy reduced-price produce that I turn into vegetarian main dishes like eggplant parmesan and such necessities as tomato sauce to avoid paying the canned prices. I don’t eat much meat and buy whatever fish is on sale. On Monday, my grocery store sells a prepared, eight-piece, cut-up chicken for $5.99, so I get that fairly often.

I shop at Aldi most of the time because they have great prices and great selections. And the delicious pizza I can get in Chicago is pretty cheap, either from the restaurant or in the freezer section. I’ve cut down drinking wine and alcohol so that it becomes a treat when I have it.

I see cheaper theater previews and use half-price websites for theater and concert whenever I can. Youth concerts are often free and very good. I’m a film critic, so I almost never pay to see movies. And I love nature, so going out in the woods or by the beach of Lake Michigan, often looking for birds, is the best entertainment I can have.

With my frugal ways, I was able to retire at 66 with a paid-off condo having never earned more than five figures my entire life. Retiring also means I don’t have to invest in office attire, makeup, or commuting. I’m not missing a thing.

Jaleelah saves on fashion:

If you need or want new clothes, get them secondhand. Swapping clothes with friends is arguably more enjoyable than walking around an offensively bright mall. The practice is affordable, sustainable, and conducive to style development. I never wore giant Hawaiian shirts or lace tank tops before my friends put theirs up for grabs.

Fast fashion is bound to drain the money and life out of you. It will cost lots of money to replace your wardrobe every two months when your slave-made dress shirts inevitably fall apart. If you have no friends, or your friends are all very different sizes than you, go to a brick-and-mortar secondhand store instead. If you live in a city, you can almost certainly find secondhand stores that fit your price range.

I’ve heard people argue that no one above the poverty line should purchase from thrift stores because it steals options from the poorest. I don’t find the argument convincing. Try not to buy scarce and important items like winter jackets or plus-size clothing from Value Village if you can afford it—poorer people do indeed need those options. But thrift stores only sell about 25 percent of their inventory—there are more than enough blazers and funky ties to go around.

If you have a wedding coming up in a recession, look for formal wear in vintage stores. Vintage stores are common in most major cities, and while they’re more expensive than thrift stores, they’re still far cheaper than normal retailers. I bought an amazing, unique formal dress for $60 at a vintage store in Toronto last summer. There’s no reason to blow hundreds of dollars on a cookie-cutter gown from Nordstrom.

Kimberly is a proponent of more and better physical intimacy in romantic partnerships:

I have meandered in and out of thrifty stages in my 62 years. After a big financial splurge on grad school in my 50s, a very late-in-life investment, I am now a couples counselor, specializing in sexual issues.

My suggestion is very thrifty, healthy for the heart and mind, and mutually beneficial in couples: Improve your sex life. If you’re not sure how, Google some podcasts, read blogs and articles from reputable sources, or explore alternative sex communities online. Consider non-orgasmic sex, non-penetrative sex, or meditative models like Tantric yoga.

If you’re inhibited by children or other care duties, swap caretaking hours with another couple. If you’re inhibited by beliefs and opinions, consider taking it slow by simply spending more time skin-to-skin with your partner. In the dark with your eyes closed, if necessary.

Most important, as my sexuality professor used to affirm, “More sex equals more sex.” In other words, the more often you engage, the more often you’ll want to engage. And it’s free.

Ed offers a range of tips with a caveat that not everyone can follow all of them:

When you can, do things yourself rather than pay others. The added advantage is that you might learn something new. An easy one: Don’t eat out so often, and fix your own meals instead. Learn how to do home repairs, like fixing a leaking faucet. Car maintenance and simple repairs are learnable; just check out the web for how to do many things.

A biggie: Learn how to pay off your credit-card debt every month, and never, ever pay credit-card interest! If you are paying credit-card interest, you are living beyond your means. This was the hardest rule to teach our kids.

I was fortunate growing up because my mom was a bookkeeper and always accounted for every expenditure to the penny, and taught me to do the same. Early habits of budgeting, saving, and learning how to do things myself when I could has paid many dividends for me over my lifetime.

I would, however, like to emphasize my first three words, “when you can.” Many people can’t follow this advice because of various circumstances, such as low wages, illnesses, family commitments, and other factors that make inflationary times exceedingly difficult for a sizable portion of our citizens. Those citizens deserve our help rather than glib pointers. They are entitled to, and should seek help from, all sources without embarrassment, and our government should do all it can to make sure that the basic needs of everyone are met. To start, the obscene tax cuts for the wealthy should be repealed, excessive corporate profits taxed, and monopolistic corporate mergers curtailed.

Dennis is a snowbird who saves in all sorts of ways:

I’m a 65-year-old frugal, happy person living in a Mexico beach town in the winters and a Canadian small town in the summers. I call it living well, within my means.

Make your own bread. Get a breadmaker at a thrift store for $20. Get flour for 50 cents a pound. Google some recipes, get yeast in bulk, and a few additives at a bulk-foods store. Use the dough cycle, and form and bake your own loaves. Eat better bread for 75 cents a loaf instead of $4. Enjoy the aroma of bread baking for lunch.

Make your own yogurt. Milk, a microwave, a bit of yogurt for starter, a warm place or a good large thermos in the sun, six hours.

Make your own beer. Buy Grolsch beer in flip-top bottles until you have 60 or so. Get beer mix kits for $25 and a 5-gallon fermenter or water bottle and air-lock cap. Boil some water; add the mix and sugar, more cold water and maybe ice to bring it down to 75 degrees; add the yeast; let it sit for a week; put it in the Grolsch bottles—sterilized with a bit of bleach—and a cup more sugar. Let them sit another week. Drink beer for 50 cents a bottle. Make wine from kits, if that’s your thing.

Buy cheap large cuts of pork. Put it in a Crock-Pot for 12 hours with some additions. Eat pulled-pork sandwiches for weeks on $20. Ditto chicken. Do I even need to say “Make your own coffee?” Buy big bags of rice and beans.

Google recipes. Eat well, cheaply.  

Get the best used Prius you can afford, if you need a car. Consider an electric bicycle instead. Look at Rad Power Bikes or Lectric eBikes to get set up for under $1,000.

Learn to sew, if only to fix stuff. Shop at thrift stores and church shops. When facing a choice of whether to spend money or not, think hard.

Understand the time value of money and compound interest. Use a credit card only as a way to pay, not a way to borrow. Avoid all debt except a mortgage. Don’t spend money you don’t yet have. Have a contingency fund.

Learn to enjoy things that are lasting, free, or cheap. Family. Nature. Games. Understand advertising isn’t there to serve you; they want your money.

Susan feels guilty about bygone clothing purchases:

My husband and I have a decent income and live comfortably, even with the current inflation. Yes, we have worked hard, but we have also been lucky (and we didn’t have children).  

I became aware a couple years ago that my clothing habit was filling landfills. I love clothes and started buying way more than I ever needed in my late 30s. Bad choices or things that no longer fit that were in good condition probably went to someone in need after donating. But I didn’t realize that shabbier donations ended up in landfills. I am rather ashamed of this.

Not only was it arrogant on my part to think that low-income people would be okay with my more visibly worn items; it never occurred to me that items too worn to give away or sell went to landfills. I’m not sure what I thought; maybe that they went to developing countries? A friend told me they were made into rags, which is doubtful.  

I have now retired and have quit buying very much at all. I have given good clothes to friends and family. We use sheets and towels until in threads.  

I am slowly emptying my closet of items worthy of donating. I won’t say I’ll never buy again but will definitely be more thoughtful in the future. I am appalled to read online that younger girls are buying “disposable” inexpensive clothes that meet current fashion trends but are made very cheaply, not meant to last, and are to be thrown away when they are no longer in fashion. That speaks to terrible waste and very poor spending practices.

Nicholas evangelizes for a particular item from the frozen-foods section:

I’ve been buying frozen mixed berries since I graduated from college in 2018. The sticker cost is higher than a single carton of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, but in the long term, I think you get more fruit for less money. It is also incredibly versatile. Want a smoothie? It’s already frozen. Are chilled berries the day’s craving? Set a bowl on the counter for 20 minutes and they’re almost identical to a fresh batch out of the produce aisle. They’re almost perfectly ripe every time, so each bite is bursting with flavor. They’re healthy for you, providing essential nutrients and antioxidants. And because the bag has more volume than just buying a carton of each fruit and mixing them together, you do not have to go back to the store as frequently to refill. Frozen mixed berries are the perfect steal for wanting to eat healthy for a long-term reduced cost.

Gary gets political:

For me, the answer is easy: VOTE. For all the excuses that politicians make, inflation is simple to understand—too much money in the system chasing too few goods and services. Government policy is instrumental to inflation. If it was not, why would we ever believe the Fed could fight inflation with its policy on interest rates?

The question becomes, what policies have the current crop of politicians put in play that contribute to inflation? Of course, one must consider other factors, like manufacturing and supply chain disruptions. However, the continuing largesse of this administration and a very generous Congress have been instrumental to the rising inflation. There are no bad people in this equation; the government giveaways all have good intent behind them, but like so many things done with good intent, the second-order effects are never considered.  

To paraphrase, the road to inflation is paved with good intentions. Look hard at those who want to continue to print money and dump it on an overloaded economic system to buy votes and VOTE them out.

James reminds us that a bargain depends in part on how much one enjoys something. Upon reflecting on which possession gave him the most value, the answer was blowing in the wind:

I purchased and hung a $300 hand-tuned wind chime outside of my front door. A ridiculous purchase. And yet, it has brought me exponentially more peace than all of my other material possessions and worldly spending combined. That has been extraordinarily eye-opening to realize. (If you’re curious about this wonder item, here’s the exact one).

Jim’s most wasteful spending was in failing to retire sooner:

My top tip: Remember that the less you desire, the more fulfilled you’ll be. The more you have, the more you’ll be distracted. Simple, not easy.

My most wasteful spending: My personal energy, particularly that spent in the workforce and commuting. If only I’d come to my senses decades earlier and retired to my home to turn my time and effort into food and useful domestic goods instead of cash. Even though my daily life today is a source of great contentment, I can’t help but think of the great opportunity cost of having to postpone this life by 45 years, dabbling when I could. Nevertheless, my personal contentment today isn’t diminished by that. What was lost, however, was the opportunity to spread the fruits of my good work that never took place. That was most wasteful.

Christine regrets searching without rather than within:

My most wasteful spending was when I was in my mid-20s, with a very large (for me, at the time) salary of $40,000/year, working at a spin-off of Bell Labs in NJ. I considered mid-NJ a cultural wasteland compared to the college towns I had lived in the seven years prior. I drove endless miles on the Garden State Parkway and the NJ Turnpike, with my new Toyota Corolla hatchback that got 40 miles per gallon of gas, and gas was only 69 cents/gallon. I was looking for culture, for something unique within all of the malls. If only I had not driven so much and spent more time looking inside of myself, I would have been much happier, and the world would have been a little better off.

JD summons his inner do-it-yourselfer:

My answer is simple. Stop paying for services you can do yourself. I’m that guy. You know, the guy in the Miller Genuine Draft commercial (they are all retrograde—and awesome) judging you for paying others to do what you should be doing yourself: lawn mowing, dog-waste disposal, house cleaning, food delivery. Those are low hanging fruit. Recently, I fixed the brakes on both of my vehicles and did some minor plumbing work. It was harder than expected, as these things usually are. But, conservatively, I’d say I saved my family $1,000, just in the last couple of months.

And Paula closes us out with a savings method:

My tip? For a week, keep track of the things that little voice inside you thinks you need: a gallon of milk, a manicure, new Thanksgiving table decorations. Extra credit if you write them down and look at the list at the end of the week. Then go get the things you do need. And be grateful for what you already have.